Karl Marx and the Marxist Aesthetics

Marxism, the political and economic theories of Karl Marx, is often applied to other theoretical frameworks in order to view particular aspects of society. One of the many areas Marxism is concerned with is art, and the lens with which one can view art from a Marxist point of view is called Marxist aesthetics. Aesthetic theory in itself is a set of criteria used to judge and criticize artwork, based on what the artist and art was trying to accomplish. Marxist aesthetics is used to judge artwork, with the idea that art should have a social function, revealing truth and awakening the people to reality of their struggle. Art, according to Marxist aesthetics, should be a revolution. Since the 1970s, Marxist aesthetic theory has become a popular way not only to judge older art, but has also inspired modern artists who apply it to their artwork in order to criticize capitalist tendencies.

There is no “official” Marxist theory of aesthetics created by Marx himself, though some in the art world believe that Marxism was ultimately a set of aesthetic beliefs. In fact, it is said that Karl Marx attempted to write specifically about aesthetics on a few occasions, but would become distracted, leaving the ideas mostly unexplored. Marxist aesthetics stems from the belief of Marxists that a true understanding of art can only be gained by having a complete understanding of Marxist theory. According to Louis Althusser, a French Marxist theorist: ”The only way we can hope to reach a real knowledge of art, to go deeper into the specificity of the work of art, to know the mechanisms which produce the `aesthetic effect’, is precisely to spend a long time and pay the greatest attention to the `basic principles of Marxism’.”

Karl Marx had a strong appreciation for art, but felt that it had lost its way. According to Marx, art is a part of the superstructure, and was therefore heavily influenced by the economy. Marx was upset

with how capitalism affected art, and the appreciation of art by viewers. He wrote about art and aesthetics many times, in his Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and Capital. In his writings he mentioned the capitalism took away this aesthetic sense, by promoting self-interested values and making disinterested appreciation of beauty impossible. In Marx’s mind, capitalism brought a monetary value to art, which turned viewers into consumers, destroying the appreciation of art is taking away the human desire to experience true beauty. Marx believed art should serve the social function of awakening society to their pain, but felt that the destruction of beauty by capitalism anesthetized people to their own suffering.

Interestingly, under Marxist aesthetics, art cannot be beautiful until Communism has been established, but rather must have utility. In 1939, American art writer Clement Greenberg had the idea that socialism was what would provide the avant-garde, or revolutionary artist with the freedom needed to create beautiful art. He believed this was because a Capitalist system rewards artists for responding to the demands of society under the influence of a ruling class . This influence is seen as corruption, causing man to be alienated from himself and therefore incapable of judging beauty. In order to create beautiful art (or see the beauty in art), man must reject this world and the “beauty” in it and perform aesthetically satisfying labor. The key element that defines beautiful or good art under Marxist aesthetics today is art that rejects and criticizes society and opens the eyes of its viewers.

In order to understand the basic ideas behind Marxist aesthetics, it is helpful to examine art (or artists) considered “good” under the criteria. Two great examples from before the rise in Marxist aesthetic popularity are Francisco De Goya, and Alphonse Mucha. With each of these two artists we can see both sides of the coin, and how their ideas fit into frame of Marxist aesthetics.

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